When the old Whitehall Theatre was transformed into the Trafalgar Studios in 2004, they must have left some residue of grease paint and powder in a dusty corner of Brian Rix’s dressing room, as Jamie Lloyd has directed a revival of Peter Barnes’s ‘baroque comedy’ The Ruling Class as an energetic farce. All the ingredients are there: the country pile full of toffs, trouser-dropping, a detective inspector appearing through the French windows with a flatfoot sergeant, a closet Bolshevik butler, a bishop, a floozy soon down to her bra and panties and yards of tweed.
When Barnes wrote the play in 1968, it was greeted in some quarters with shock, as it took swipes at the Establishment, the Church of England, the British Empire, lunacy, education and the upper classes.
The play opens with the accidental death of the 13th Earl of Gurney, whose predilection for kinky self-gratification was to dress up in a tutu and cocked hat and nearly hang himself, only this time he overdid it. Enter Jack, played with colossal gusto by the energetic James McAvoy, his only son and heir, to inherit the title and estate, but he is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic who imagines himself to be Jesus Christ, the God of Love.
Whenever someone says “Oh my God”, Jack turns to the audience, raises his eyebrows and smiles in recognition. He is asked, “How do you know you’re God?” and replies, “Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I’m talking to myself.”
The plot centres around the scheme hatched by the dastardly Uncle Charles (Ron Cook on cracking form) to marry Jack off to his mistress Grace, dressed up as Marguerite Gautier, The Lady of the Camellias, so that a new heir can be produced and Jack can be permanently sectioned. Jack falls for her and they are married. “You deserve a big kiss” she says. “Not here in the garden. Last time I was kissed in a garden, it turned out rather awkward.” One can appreciate why an audience might have wriggled in their seats back in the late sixties.
Anthony O’Donnell plays the butler, one of the best drunks seen on stage since Alun Armstrong played Mr Wagstaff in Nicholas Nickleby, who gets his own back on the “titled turds” by spitting in their soup. Two other actors who stand out are Paul Leonard and Forbes Masson. Both play a number of totally different roles, including the tweedy church matron Mrs Piggott-Smith, who, when being sexually advanced upon by Jack, screams, “Stay back! My husband is a Master of Hounds!” Masson turns in a terrific performance as Mrs Treadwell, her chum, complete with a pheasant feather in her hunting hat. Joshua McGuire as the fey Dinsdale Gurney merely reprises his role as John Ruskin in Mr Turner, while Serena Evans plays Dinsdale’s mother the vampish and manipulative Lady Claire with great conviction.
This is a tour de force, like Downton Abbey on acid, both in pace and humour, particularly from McAvoy, and although the first act is a trifle over-long, it gathers momentum again in the second, slightly more sinister, act, with murderous trips down the dark, Victorian alleys of Jack’s troubled mind.
Until Saturday 11 April 2015
Box office: www.atgtickets.com